Agnosia: Losing the Ability to See the Obvious

In order to succeed at leading anything that involves people, one needs to know a lot about people. This is especially true when it comes to lean manufacturing, lean retail, lean distribution, lean healthcare or whatever you prefer to lean. People are fascinating bundles of systems and subsystems and from a problem solver’s viewpoint, extremely interesting. This makes it handy to have at least a basic familiarity with anthropology, psychology, neurology and various other hard and soft sciences that deal with human behavior.

Today I want to introduce a useful word into your lean lexicon: agnosia. It means “losing the ability to recognize a person, a word, a sound, a thing” etc. Agnosia is usually the result of trauma to the head. I first came across this idea in a book called The Man

Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. Few titles invite reading like that one. How does this relates to our topic of interest: helping people become better at continuous improvement? We often speak about “learning to see waste” or developing people’s eyes to see abnormalities. Waste can be like that black and white picture of an old lady / young lady. It is an optical illusion. You might only see the profile of the young woman’s neck and hat at first, but then your perception shifts and all you can see is the hag and her big nose. That’s what it’s like to recognize waste: once you start seeing it, waste is everywhere and you can’t stop seeing it.

But can’t you? There is always head trauma. And the less recognized and more insidious brand of damage to our ability to see called “that’s just how things are done around here” followed by busily walking off to do other things that we believe need to be done today. I’ve heard managers say, “I’ve forgotten more in the last 7 years than I learned in my previous 12 years” while working at a company that was particularly good at command and control batch and queue production. All of the education, training and motivation of that young manager were beaten out as the new way of not seeing waste was driven in through the daily pursuit of queue management. Agnosia set in.

The only way to avoid this is for each one of us to hold to our principles. We need to have a vision of the ideal. Regardless of realities of the ways we are forced to work each day, the ideal remains true. It may be highly unpleasant to continue working in ways that we know are stupid, often even intolerable to stay in that job. Even so we need to know what is wrong and to look for opportunities to improve it, without losing faith. I have encountered just as many if not more people who were faced with the young manager’s dilemma but did not give into agnosia. They were rewarded when the winds finally changed and their opinions suddenly mattered a lot.

“All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” As long as we continue passing on virtues, values and sound principles without losing heart in the face of difficulties, as long as we don’t lose the ability to see waste for what it is, we will triumph.

2 Comments

  1. John Santomer

    August 25, 2009 - 2:38 am

    Dear Jon,
    Superb article! I was clapping my hands and standing up for an ovation reading the last few lines.
    Another similar dangerous state that can be attributed is anaesthesia. This occurs in four levels and the most lethal is stage four called Medullary paralysis wherein the patient’s medulla oblongata, a part of the brain that controls breathing and other vital functions cease-this, when not addressed immediately may lead to death.
    Similarly in any business, if all departments act like “Harpies” and “sing” only of success stories within the confines of their units – like local anaesthesia (Imagine if all the departments; afraid of being chopped off because of a bad report chose to sing like a Harpie, gradually “numbs” the business because the real situation is not shown. Unlike agnosia, the person sees the situation but “does not recognize” it – anaesthesia leaves one totally unaware of what happened rendering the person unable to address the situation even if he has all the virtues, values and sound principles needed to triumph over waste. “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” – this is not a situation anyone would like to be in.
    Total anaesthesia is most lethal at its peak, because people who still have the will of heart not to lose faith, continuing to pass on the virtues, values and principles may soon regain consciousness finding themselves “surgically removed” after the operation. After all, its the oldest trick in the book – “Divide and Conquer”.
    Even if a person was not looking out for a reward or recognition for standing ground until the winds finally changed and his opinion mattered at all-it is wearing the person down. He is still human and not a machine. Even well oiled machines when not maintained do break down eventually.

  2. Robert

    August 25, 2009 - 3:16 am

    It reminds me to this: “Somebody Else’s Problem (also known as Someone else’s problem or SEP) is an effect that causes people to ignore matters which are generally important to a group but may not seem specifically important to the individual.” (source: wikipedia). I meet people with SEP (but without any trauma) almost every day 😀